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Troop withdrawal

30 November 2009

Gancho this Sunday:

In a speech marking his first three years in office, Calderón said the army will remain on the streets for the immediate future. At the same time, the chairman of the National Defense Committee in the Chamber of Deputies, Ardelio Vargas, said that the money budgeted for military expenditures (some $3 billion, which suddenly does seem really small for a nation of 100 million people) in 2010 is insufficient.

I don’t see what it preventing Calderón from offering a broad timeline for the removal of troops…

I’ve written about the relative small size of the Army before. We all sing about how “every mother’s son is a soldier” before the futbol game, and Mexicans generally respect the military as an  institution, but not professionals working in that state enterprise.  Those remembered — Iturbide, Santa Anna, Porfirio Diaz, Victoriano Huerta — are mostly remembered for villainy. Ignacio Zaragosa Seguín, the Texas born Republican general who beat back the French at the siege of Puebla, is the exception that tests the rule: and a good part of his reputation rests on both not looking particularly military (I always said he looks more like a grad student than a general) and dying before he’d done any political damage.

The military budget is small, but then — by design — so are the military forces.  This country doesn’t face any serious external threats.   Other than the United States (which would overwhelm the Mexico forces, no matter how large their budget) the only theoretical foreign security threats are a spillover of guerrilla warfare from Guatemala, should that country erupt into civil war again, or a refugee crisis was the Cuba political and economic system to suddenly collapse.   I always thought it should be a matter of pride — and sign of a healthy set of priorities — that health and education expenditures in the national budget dwarfed military spending … even during the country’s one and only foreign war (World War II).

Mexico since the 1930s has been considered the most “advanced” of the Latin American nations — not just for its social policies, but because it had a stable political system that did not rely on overt violence and militarism.  Not that military force hasn’t been used against dissenting forces or that state violence or coercion of the citizenry through armed intimidation is unknown, but the Mexican establishment  — starting with Manuel Avila Camacho during the Second World War — sought to separate the military from the social and political sphere, and has been seen as largely democratic and progressive.

When the military has been unleashed to control political and social disputes  (1958 during the railway strike; 1968 and the subsequent “dirty war”; briefly in 1994 during the Zapatista uprising), it has been relatively small scale operations, relatively clandestine and denied or only reluctantly defended by the civilian authorities.  Not celebrated.

Calderón’s “War” is largely political, but its celebration (and overt support) is very much out of the Mexican historical mainstream.  I’m reminded of the old George Carlin joke about Nixon’s reluctance to get out of Vietnam, that “Premature withdrawal would be unmanly”.  Having made the “war on (drug dealers, dissent, insecurity — take your pick)”  the touchstone of his administration, there’s a natural reluctance among politios to admit the policy has created more harm than good.

There is the more sinister explanation.  Even if one believes Calderón’s electoral victory was legitimate (which I have my doubts about… but then I think Al Gore was the legitimately elected President of the United States in 2000, too), he came into office with only the support of a little over a third of the voters, and many of them simply choosing the lesser of several evils.  Under this scenario (as Laura Carlsen and others have suggested), the “War on [fill in the blank]” isn’t so much about the narcotics exporters, or even about insecurity, but a naked grab for power:

The military had enabled Calderon to take office by physically escorting him into a Congress occupied by protestors and placing the presidential banner over his shoulder. The country was in the throes of massive protests involving at least half the populace.

Once in office, Calderon launched the war on drugs. This strategy allowed a weak president with little popular legitimacy to cement his power, based on building an alliance with the armed forces under a militarized counternarcotics model.

The war on drugs model created an external enemy to distract from the internal protests and division. With its focus on interdiction and supply-side enforcement, the model was originally developed by President Richard Nixon in the 70s to increase presidential power, by taking counternarcotics efforts out of the hands of communities, where it was treated largely as a community health issue, and placing it in the hands of the executive, where it was treated as a security issue.

Of course, this ignores the fact (one that I sometimes also tend to dismiss) that the “War” does have broad popular support.  Nobody is really pro-gangster.  And, as with the United States’ “War Against Iraq, Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan” people who “support the troops” tend to back the regime that puts those troops in harms’ way.

Carlsen tends to think the impetus “Plan Merida” — the financial incentive for the Mexican military action against its own people — lays with the U.S. sponsored “Security and Prosperity Partnership”.  SPP sought to expand NAFTA into security and military matters, which may have been, as Carlsen writes, an attempt by:

…the Bush administration sought a means to extend its national security doctrine to its regional trade partners. This meant that both Canada and Mexico were to assume counter-terrorism activities (despite the absence of international terrorism threats in those nations), border security (in Mexico’s case, to control Central American migrants), and protection of strategic resources and investments. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon called it “arming NAFTA.”

Or, as I think, simply a cost-effective (for the United States) way of co-opting Mexican and Canadian military forces to further U.S. policy… and, just coincidentally, benefit those U.S. corporations that supply military and police forces. And, given the United States government’s backing of Calderón after his questionable electoral victory, it may just be payback for that support that allowed the occupant in Los Pinos to propose “Plan Merida” in the first place.

There are plenty of studies of the narcotics trade as a business, but I’m not aware of any studies of the impact of “Plan Merida”, or the “War on Drugs, etc.” on the Mexican economy.  There’s an assumption that the money earned by the narcos north of the border somehow “corrupts” Mexico (though I admit I’ve never understood how money — being fungible — earned from one sort of dishonest labor is somehow “dirtier” and more corrupting than money earned in other dishonest enterprises).  And the “War” hasn’t had any measurable effect on the money earned by that sector of the economy.  BUT… the tourist economy and transportation have taken a beating as Mexico is painted as a dangerous place in the foreign press, and the drug war is used to excuse delays in implementing cross-border transit, and in slowing down transit within Mexico for inspections — creating losses especially for those transporting perishable goods (and further undermining the agricultural sector).  And, the “War” has seriously impacted ordinary retail sales and services in northern border cities, like Tijuana and Juarez.

Sure, the narcos provide jobs (and there are openings for security guards — and Calderón, we forget, campaigned on a “jobs, jobs, jobs” platform as well as a “mano duro” one.  ), but if anything is preventing the Calderón Administration from giving a time-table for removing the troops, it’s as simple as ideology triumphing over common sense.   There are a few arguments in favor of a centralized national police (though they are, so far, unconvincing and fuzzily explained), but Calderón’s political roots are in Mexican conservatism, which has always preferred centralized political control.  And, having been born to the PANista hierarchy, Calderón is heir to the elitist tradition in Mexican political theory:  an outgrowth of both the 19th century criollo class privileges (and the counter-balancing concept of noblesse oblige), and the authoritarianism at the heart of PAN philosophy.

So, Calderón, as did fellow conservative George W. Bush on the downside of his administrative term, plows ahead with the policies on which he was elected, even at the cost of political support and in the face of evidence that such policies are counter-productive.

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